Opinion: Help us find inspiring news

The AJC’s popular Inspire Atlanta section.
The AJC’s popular Inspire Atlanta section.

It’s been an inspiring few months.

Back in June, we launched a new Sunday feature, called Inspire Atlanta.

The idea, modeled after similar initiatives in Philadelphia in Minneapolis, addressed a long-standing concern by some readers who wanted more positive stories in their morning newspaper.

The initial feedback was overwhelming. So much so that we quickly expanded the feature, and it now appears seven days a week.

Along the way, something truly inspiring happened: Readers were so moved by some of our stories that they sprang into action.

For some, the story of Benjamin Graham was particularly touching.

Graham, as you might remember, once lived under a bridge in downtown Atlanta, struggling with depression and battling an addiction to drugs. At one point, he even contemplated suicide.

Deep down, Graham knew there had to be a better life. So he agreed to seek treatment for his addiction and mental problems and tried to rekindle an entrepreneurial spirit that had burned within him since he was a little boy.

Today, Graham is the proud owner of Bigmouthben Stores, a convenience store along Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue that sells souvenirs, sodas and sundries. At Bigmouthben, the homeless can grab a free soda and snack, as well as something off a rack of donated clothes.

Hours after that story appeared, John Tapley, a reader who lives in Marietta, found himself outside Graham’s store, drawn by a stranger’s story of positive thinking and steadfast determination.

“… he was there, and his wife Tanya,” Tapley told us, “what a thrill it was to meet them both.”

“We talked and got to know each other a little, will stay connected and continue to follow his story. What a true inspiration he is, so wonderful to see this,” Tapley said. “The world is in better shape because of Ben. Thank you for bringing this story to us.”

For another reader, Graham’s story hit close to home. “I gave the article for my adult son to read in hopes of inspiring him. I am hoping [he] will take this article to heart and know that there is hope.”

She added: “Good for Mr. Graham that he has become a successful citizen … by giving back to the community. He has earned every bit of his success! Thank you for that great story. What an inspiration!”

Is it possible our readers were just in an exceptionally good mood on that warm and sunny Sunday morning?

Probably not – especially if you consider what happened the following week, when we published a story on a Facebook page that encourages random acts of kindness.

The idea, you might remember, stemmed from a seemingly insignificant event outside a post office. One day, Rich McGuinness, who lives in Sandy Springs, stopped to hold the door for an older woman who was bent over and walking with a cane.

McGuinness thought nothing of it. But the woman sure did. “I want you to know this is the nicest thing to happen to me in a very long time,” she told McGuinness.

That left McGuinness pondering a question many of us may have asked of late: What has happened to the world? And what can be done to encourage even small acts of kindness?

With that, McGuinness, a retired top executive with the American Cancer Society, and his friend, Pat Fiorello, a former vice president of marketing at Coca-Cola-turned-artist, created the Facebook page, “Unleashing Kindness,” and became its first two members.

Followers of the page share their stories of kindness – from the couple who quietly picked up the lunch tab for two first responders; to the woman who hugged a random shopper after their carts nearly collided; to the traveler who gave a gift card to a worker meticulously cleaning the bathrooms at a rest stop.

Before our story appeared, the Facebook page had 12,028 members. Within two days, more than 700 new members had joined the group.

“The response has been fantastic. We expect our dramatic growth to continue, thanks to your coverage,” McGuinness told us.

“The comments we have received have all been very positive, with many thanking us for starting the group and telling us we all need more positive news in these turbulent and difficult times.”

McGuinness is among those who have shared their feedback on Inspire Atlanta.

Some of you shared your own inspiring stories.

Or you thanked us for setting aside space for a regular dose of good news. (One subscriber, Judy Fellers, wrote: “Thank you for giving me another reason to enjoy my Sunday paper.”)

Or you provided a suggestion or a lead on a story. (If it weren’t for one reader’s tip, the story of Graham might have not appeared.)

And now, we need your help once again.

By every measure, Inspire Atlanta is off to a strong start. But, as we look toward the start of a new year, there are several questions we’d like to answer.

  • How we can increase Inspire Atlanta's voice and reach?
  • What stories resonate with readers – and how we can provide more of those types of pieces?
  • Are there partners in the community that can help us celebrate our region's milestones, moments and people? That, after all, is an important part of our journalistic mission.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll begin those types of discussions in our newsroom. But we need your input, as well. After all, your input has helped make Inspire Atlanta so special.

We’ve created a special email address dedicated to Inspire Atlanta. You can email us at inspiretalanta@ajc.com. Remember, there’s no such thing as a bad idea.

In the meantime, we hope these stories have left you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy week that lies ahead.

We hope you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.

And most importantly, we hope the feature has motivated you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.

Mark Waligore is the AJC’s Managing Editor & Senior Director.